By Alice Lapuerta
Originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
One thing I’ve been confused about in our multilingualism-adventure is the “consistency” factor. It crops up everywhere: Bilingualism yes, but make sure you’re consistent. Choose a method and stick to it. But always be consistent!
This worries me. For there seems to be an unspoken, unwritten phrase that follows: “Be consistent! Or else…”
The question that I always feel like asking is: How consistent, if you please, is consistent?
Does this refer to a kind of consistent that doesn’t allow any exceptions? Consistent as in Papi speaks one language, Mami another, both are strictly separated, ever and always, to the end of our days, amen? Or: don’t ever utter a word in the majority language within your four walls because that will be the beginning of the end?
Be consistent! The Alpha and Omega of multilingual parenting.
What if you’ve adopted a certain method when your child was born and you are now relocating, or somehow finding that the method doesn’t serve anymore? Does changing your method mean that you are being inconsistent? That, to be responsible and consistent in your multilingual parenting, you should always stick to a single method, always? Because if you don’t, it can, quite possibly, have dreadful consequences – like confusing your child?
Or does “consistency” mean: don’t ever mix languages. Yes but… See, this is another one of those things. What exactly does that mean? That I should not ever invent my own words, or speak Spanglish, Germspanish or Germenglish in front of my children because our children just won’t learn how to speak properly if I do?
Or does it mean that I am not supposed to switch languages in front of my child? That he only ever hears one language emerge from my mouth? Like when we are at the playground. Everyone speaks German, the majority language, yet I should stick to English with my son. But… isn’t that rude? I feel so self-conscious when I do that and would rather speak German with my son, too, so the others understand what I am saying. Doesn’t matter, the answer seems to be: You stick to your language, always. You gotta be consistent.
And what if my daughter speaks to me in the “wrong” language, what do I do then? I guess I better ignore her or try to goad her into repeating what she said in the “right” language. She’s got to learn to be consistent as well, doesn’t she? Or else she won’t grow up into a “proper bilingual.”
More often than not I find myself in this situation:
“Mami, what is this?”
“It’s uh …” (dang it! What was that again in English? Consistent! Consistent!!)
I give up. “It’s a Dampfwalzmaschine, honey.” So much for consistency.
Or does it mean: consistent, yes, but in the end you have to do what feels right. This is another one of those paradoxes. We need to be consistent on one hand, but can, and probably should, bend rules according to our own needs. Interpret that as “being consistent at your own whim.”
Somehow that doesn’t help much, either.
How oppressive this consistency-factor is becoming. It’s a load full of rocks on my shoulders.
Mr. Consistency is like an inflexible and conservative schoolmaster, waving a rod, threatening in the background, checking on us whether we’re sticking to the rules, ready to smack my fingers at any time.
It gives me guilty feelings and instills worry. We start to check and control every single word that leaves our mouths. We check and control each other: “You just said something in English again, honey, you know you shouldn’t (at least not when the children are around)!”
Ah no, it’s not easy. For when mommy speaks German and Papi speaks Spanish and between us we speak English, yet the majority language is German, this situation is just the epitome of inconsistency. And so I bow my head in resignation. I’m really sorry, but there’s no way we can ever be consistent. It’s just not possible. Not realistic.
We just need to switch languages, code-switch, mix, and sometimes invent our own words to communicate. We need to be flexible. We cannot stick to just one method forever and always.
Instead, we ended up using two methods and merged them together, by chopping off one and sticking it to the other, fitting and molding them to serve our unique linguistic family situation. Via trial and error we created the one method, the one system that worked for us, that made us all happy. And in the process we broke all rules of consistency. Yes, we are guilty here.
I do confess: sometimes we start a sentence in one language and end in another. What can I say. Multilinguals do tend to do that. It’s in our genes! It’s part of our lifestyles.
So I sacked Mr. Consistency and felt considerably happier.
I’ve been pondering, lately. What if “consistent” is simply meant to say: “don’t give up”? Be “persistent”? You started the bilingualism adventure, it doesn’t matter how you do it, what methods you chose or what rules you have to bend to make them work for you: be consistent in keeping your faith that it will all work out somehow, in the end?
More often than not you find yourself whining: “Why can’t we just be the average, normal monolingual family like our neighbors! How easy, how simple life must be for them!” Maybe here, precisely here, we need to tell ourselves: Let’s not give up! We can do it! Others are doing it, we can, too! Let’s just be consistent!
Lo and behold, Mr. Consistency, the strict schoolmaster, decided to put his rod away. He’s finally smiling upon us.
Disclaimer: this is a subjective reflection on personal experiences. The author is not proposing for everyone to be inconsistent in their bilingual parenting, now. By all means!
Are you and your spouse consistent in your languages? Or do you tend to mix up languages simply because that comes most naturally?